Michael Crummey, now firmly established as one of our pre-eminent Canadian writers, has, throughout his career, explored, with extraordinary depth of perception, the peculiar and particular emotional ache that arises from our human awareness of the passage of time, and the eternal sadness of lost things. It is not nostalgia, precisely; it is far grander and deeper than that. It encompasses not just the yearning for a particular time past, but all times past, and, not just the yearning of an individual but a sort of collective regretful reverence, tied inextricably but not necessarily straightforwardly, to our own individual sense of mortality, and the weirdness of possessing a consciousness that allows us to contemplate it. This connection between our own mortality, and our relationship to, and acceptance of, the inevitable cycles of birth, life and death is explored in Crummey’s latest novel, Sweetland, in which the end of an individual life (that of Moses Sweetland) and the end of a way of life (in Newfoundland’s outports) brilliantly coalesce in a splendid and sombre story.
Moses Sweetland, irascible, taciturn, stubborn, loyal and heroic, is sixty-nine years old, and on the cusp of his seventh age. An elder of the tiny (population ~90) Newfoundland outport community of Chance Cove, on the island of Sweetland, named after his ancestors who arrived two centuries ago, he is in the difficult position of being forced by life to contemplate not only his own denouement, but that of his community as well. His life story is the story of his place, Newfoundland, picking up it’s history from about the time that Crummey’s last novel Galore (a Canadian masterpiece!) left off, and carrying into the present day.
The early death of their father left Moses and his brother Hollis struggling to support the family with subsistence fishing. There is the obligatory youthful trip to Toronto in search of “good money” which ends catastrophically in an industrial accident which disfigured Moses, and sent him back to Newfoundland, where he worked as a fisherman until the 1992 moratorium on cod. This was followed by a period as a lighthouse keeper, until that was automated, at which point he drifted into retirement. Inexorable change, it seems, has been nipping at Moses’s heels all his life. Never married, he lived with his mother until her death nine months prior to the opening of the story, surrounded by a family and community shaped and, in some cases warped, by the exigencies of life in the outports.
Moses’s immediate community includes his blind brother-in-law Pilgrim, who lives with his daughter Clara (Moses’s niece) and her possibly autistic son, Jesse. Other notables include Queenie Coffin, the chainsmoking, serial-romance-novel-reading, agorophobe, who plants a flower garden each spring by dumping a packet of seeds out of a window into a plot below, and Duke Fewer, who set up a mostly imaginary barbershop business in town after the cod moratorium, where a perpetual game of chess plays itself out over the course of the story. There is Moses’s hopelessly hapless neighbour Loveless, who can’t take care of anything, including himself. Loveless’s sister Sara, although deceased, still makes her presence felt, as does Ruth, Moses’s sister and Clara’s mother, deceased as well. The Priddle brothers, albeit somewhat peripheral characters, are nonetheless sketched impeccably — a pair of rogue bachelor brothers most often making big money somewhere “away” and living wildly but returning sporadically to disrupt the community and whose essential natures teeter precariously and unpredictably between dangerous and heroic. Crummey’s approach to characterization might be described as “compassionate hilarious,” and he is unparallelled in his ability reveal characters from the inside-out, with extraordinary economy, who, once encountered by the reader, become permanent acquaintances. In the process, the essential heroism of the characters’ wry stoicism in the face of life’s tragedies, is celebrated — wryly, and without pretension or caricaturization.
The story opens with the little community facing a death blow. The government, a gimlet eye on unsustainable costs, has offered a relocation package to the residents of Sweetland: a minimum payment of $100,000 per family to relocate anywhere in the province, the only catch being that acceptance of the deal must be unanimous. Everyone must go. A government man appears at Moses’s door in a blinding blaze of morning light, like an angel messenger from the future. The intruder reveals his alien nature immediately by knocking at the front door, and the metaphorical distance between Chance Cove and the mainland is established with a few words about tea:
“Cup of tea?”
“You don’t have coffee by any chance?”
“I got instant.”
“Tea is fine.”
The agent has arrived to inform Moses that one of the three remaining dissenting households has capitulated, leaving only Moses and his neighbour Loveless obstructing the deal. The news is clearly a blow to Moses. Loveless, as his name might suggest, and whose peculiar nature is ascribed to a pint of kerosene he drank as a baby, can hardly be considered an asset in a battle against the forces of change. Predictably, Loveless does not hold out long. The now ironically named Moses stands as the last obstacle on his people’s path to the promised land. The deadline for a final decision is September. The outcome is never really in doubt.
Moses is under considerable pressure to accept the deal both from community members and his immediate family. He has, apparently, been finding mysterious, anonymous, threatening letters in his home, the messages amateurishly cut and pasted from magazine text, and there are rumours of threats to burn him out. When Keith Priddle, one of the aforementioned Priddle brothers, notes that “The old man says he’s going to cut off your nuts with a fish knife, you don’t sign,” it is treated as a joke, but there is an element of real threat. Perhaps most eerily, Moses begins to find mutilated rabbit heads — first nailed to a tree near one of his snares, and later, nailed to his stagehead (a sort of fisherman’s dock) which does, later, mysteriously burn.
Stubborn and independent, but not stupid, Moses is rattled, but not swayed by the pressure. He has his own reasons for wanting to stay, which mostly have to do with loyalty and an only dimly perceived need for meaning in his own life. On a larger register, he feels a deep sense of attachment and reverence for the island, its history and the lives of the people who have lived there, and is resistant to the idea that they will just disappear in the rush of time. Approaching his eighth decade, his own life history is more closed allied with the dead of the island than the living, and with no children to connect him to the future, the meaning of his own life resides in the history of his place. He worries about the graves of the community’s ancestors and the inevitable disintegration and dispersal of the island’s collective memory that the relocation will bring. As Crummey has taken some pains to establish (not the least that the island shares his name) in many ways Moses is the island, not in a geological sense, but in a human, historical sense. Not particularly emotionally self-aware, it is Moses’s tragedy to be struggling to come to terms with the meaning of his own life at a time when the place where he has built this meaning, and where it most securely resides is, itself, dying.
There is one tenuous connection to the future which almost allows Moses to move forward, and to carry his story to a new place and this is his young grand-nephew Jesse, with whom he has developed a special relationship. In a moment of rashness, however, he promised Jesse that he would never have to leave the island as long as Moses had anything to do with it, and, initially, it is loyalty to this promise that further fuels Moses’s determination to defy the government offer, and community pressure.
But, as Pilgrim puts it rather bluntly to Moses:
You’re an old man …And what’s Jesse going to have here once we goes?… Clara’s going to be left alone with the youngster is what’s going to happen. She’ve got a chance to go somewhere with a bit of money to see the boy looked after. And you’re going to fuck it up.
Forced to the realization that he is not acting in Jesse’s best interests, Moses, does, finally, capitulate and signs the agreement. This flicker of future possibility, however, is dramatically crushed almost immediately by a tragic accident, perhaps precipitated by Mose’s decision, which claims Jesse’s life, and in a strange and sad way, achieves Jesse’s goal of not leaving, and, darkly fulfills Moses’s promise. Free now, of any external obligations, Moses’s allegiance lies firmly with his island, and the past, and, somewhat impulsively, but nonetheless ingeniously, he extricates himself from the relocation without jeopardizing it for the others by faking his own death and secretly returning to Sweetland.
In a brilliant evocation of the essential situation, and presage of what is to come, Mose’s. returning home one evening, from efforts on behalf of Loveless’s cow,
turned to see the cove glimmer in the last light, houses and windows glowing faintly orange and red, the colours fading and winking out as he watched. There was no stopping it, he knew. Days when the weather was roaring outside his mother would say, Stall as long as you like, sooner or later a body’s got to make a run for the outhouse. The whole place was going under, and almost everyone it mattered to was already in the ground.
Here, in this passage, lies the essence of the book: a sharp appreciation of beauty, a blunt acknowledgment of truth, and a defiant humour. Although a hardy Newfoundland outporter, better equipped than most to survive in difficult conditions, at sixty-nine, Moses knows he’s going to die, and, on a deserted island, in winter, bereft of the most basic amenities, no doubt sooner than later, especially after, in an ill-considered moment, he jettisoned his boat, believing this would make his disappearance more believable. But, like so many tragic heroes before him, he enters a beautiful, impossible battle, with courage, resourcefulness and dignity. Moses’s decision to stay with his dead on the island is not suicidal — he fights very hard for all of his allotted time. It is, however, the beginning of a process of passing over, a relinquishing of the physical world, and the approximate last half of the book is devoted to the haunting realization of one man’s passage from a physical to a spiritual existence. Like much of Crummey’s writing, this section has the air of close observation, as opposed to invention, and it was, therefore, not so surprising to learn part of the inspiration for Sweetland came from his experience watching his father succumb to terminal cancer (1). We, here on this side of the divide, have names for Moses’s deterioration, as he tries to live alone on the island — delirium, bushed, cabin fever — indeed, the idea is part of our Canadian mythology, but whatever the genesis, it is clear that those in the process of cutting ties with the living spend more and more time “somewhere else.” Early on, Moses begins to experience small slippages and inconsistencies in chronology, and forms attachments, and carries on conversations, first with the animal world, and then with the dead — bringing a portrait of a long dead uncle into the kitchen for company, and talking with his dead grandfather. His experiences become increasingly fantastical — he sees spectral lights in the deserted Coffin house (as did Jesse before him) believes that someone has resumed the game of chess still set up in Duke’s old barber shop, and is saved from being lost at sea in the fog (in an old boat of Loveless’s that he has resurrected) by ghostly music emanating from the boarded up church. There is a gradual and seamless incursion of mind and memory into the physical world until it is unclear, both for Moses and the reader, where the story resides. Moses reaction is stoical:
he held to what he’d chosen and managed to make a sort of peace with the bizarre incidents that had become a feature of his days, accepted the fact that some of the world he lived in couldn’t be found on a map
This “other world,” of which Moses finds himself increasingly an inhabitant, can be interpreted as the reader sees fit. Crummey, however, very effectively creates an atmosphere which allows for the uncanny, without pronouncing upon it. It begins as small inconsistencies (with easy but unprovable explanations) — the provenance of the threat letters is never established, Jesse (symptom of his condition?) talks regularly with Moses’s dead brother Hollis, and conveys messages which Moses finds quite unsettling. Moses comes to recognize that Jesse has an intense internal reality which is inaccessible to others. Crummey also uses imagery brilliantly but subtly to foreshadow key events in the story (more on this in a subsequent post) leaving readers with an unsettling sense of deja vu when the actual events are encountered. And, always and everywhere — the ocean — it’s unfathomable depths and uncharted mysteries, dwarfing the doings of man. There is a palpable sense of a reality far broader than our every day perceptions can encompass, although we sometimes catch a glimpse of it, and a fascinating evocation of the dilemma of having your perceptions and, therefore, experience, for whatever reasons, fail to align with your idea of the possible. Crummey makes you understand, through Moses, just how easy it might be to get lost, and how delicate a thing certainty is.
One lovely consequence of Moses living increasingly in his own mind and memory is that the reader comes to learn the stories of many of the characters introduced in the first half of the book in a far greater detail — including that of Moses himself, and his complicated relationship to his dead brother Hollis, and sister Ruth — lives of apparently simple people, which on the surface might seem easy to dismiss or categorize, but, in fact, contain astounding depths of perception, complexity, weakness, strength, emotion and endurance. In a strange way, these musings, shared in the book, accomplish the fictional Moses’s aim — they deeply regard, honour and memorialize, in other words, give meaning, to the lives of those involved. And, in this way, Moses jumps out of the story, and does the same for a lost way of life, and the very real people who lived it.
Close attention to the evocative, deeply sensate opening scene of Sweetland provides a succinct guide to the themes to be found therein, and presages the ending. Moses, on a trip to the mainland to gather firewood, has, on his way home, has been stranded on the water in fog. His sight temporarily disadvantaged, he has cut his engine to drift awhile, every other sense keenly alert to the possibility of approaching vessels, but there is
just the lap of the waves against the hull for the longest time. The wail of the foghorn on Burnt Head
He heard them before he saw them. Voices in the fog, so indistinct he thought they might be imaginary. An auditory hallucination, the mind trying to compensate for a sensory lack. The way a solitary man will start talking to furniture, left alone long enough.
Spooked him. Miles out on the water and that voice seeming to rise from the ocean itself.
The voice was, in fact, the desperate cry for help from a lifeboat full of abandoned Sri Lankan refugees, adrift on the ocean, which Moses, in his role as leader, protector, preserver, rescues and tows to land. So, here we have, from the outset, the idea of a quest for, and the meaning of, home, of concealed realities, of beginnings and endings, the mind versus the external world, the skim of life across the surface of reality, and, all rolled into the ocean — deep time, existence, and the cycles of life.
Crummey is an adept at teasing out the points of intersection between the universal and the particular and personal, and has done so again, the Sweetland, with extraordinary effectiveness. Within the intersecting portion of a Venn diagram composed of the circle of Crummey’s own experience with death, and that of the universal experience of time and mortality, lies the story of Moses Sweetland, and the island that bears his name.